Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Chicago Tribune: 'No' to Buckingham Fountain crosswalk closing; Vehicles triumph, pedestrians lose

Chicago Tribune July 17, 2005 Sunday:
'No' to Buckingham Fountain crosswalk closing;
Vehicles triumph, pedestrians lose


By Blair Kamin, Tribune architecture critic

See the beauty of Buckingham Fountain, all Beaux-Arts splendor with jets of water shooting out of its sea creatures' mouths. Now see the ugly wood-and-wire snow fences that city officials put up along the curb to close the Lake Shore Drive crosswalk linking the fountain to the Queen's Landing lakefront promenade.

Wham! Bam! Thank you, city traffic managers.

You've managed, in a single bone-headed stroke, to make life supremely inconvenient for thousands of walkers, bicyclists and joggers, and to blight a lakefront landmark. Why not just take your Los Angeles-style, auto-dominated logic to its extreme and change the Drive's name to the Lake Shore Expressway? That way, there would be no doubt that the car is king and the pedestrian's status is strictly second-class.

In case you missed the front page of Thursday's Tribune, transportation reporter Jon Hilkevitch revealed that Mayor Richard M. Daley's newly created Traffic Management Authority quietly closed the crosswalk before the recent Taste of Chicago festival. Their coldly calculated reasoning: To move more cars more efficiently through downtown. Pedestrians, who for years have used the crosswalk to get from the fountain to Queen's Landing, now must schlep to alternative crossings at Jackson and Balbo Drives.

No public hearing

This isn't Queen-for-a-Day treatment. This is a bunch of city bureaucrats treating a high-profile lakefront crosswalk, one that serves an integral functional and formal role in Grant Park, as though it led across Ashland Avenue. There was no public hearing (none was required). The public lost out because the traffic managers didn't balance the needs of people on foot with the needs of people behind the wheel.

Recalling how a red carpet was rolled across Lake Shore Drive in 1959 so Queen Elizabeth II could cross from her yacht to Buckingham Fountain (thus the name "Queen's Landing"), Michael Burton of the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront told Hilkevitch: "It is ironic that the queen of England was welcomed at that very spot by the first Mayor Daley, but everyday people can't get across Lake Shore Drive there under our current Mayor Daley."

Let's be honest: The Buckingham Fountain-Queen's Landing crosswalk was far from ideal. Crossing the Drive at street level required a certain bravery. We're talking ten lanes of traffic. It was a jungle out there, with the revving of the car's engine substituting for the lion's roar.

Still, the crosswalk was something, an imperfect stopgap measure that would do its serviceable best until city officials could cobble together funds to build a light-filled underground passageway comparable to the one that leads from Grant Park to the Museum Campus. Under the Illinois FIRST public works program, they reached a deal with the state in 1999 to build the underpass for $19 million. Yet construction never began, and now, city officials say, funding would have to be secured from the federal government or the state. The lack of action makes one wonder how high on the civic priority list this project actually ranks.

Not very high, it appears.

A few years ago, renowned Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava presented a plan for two pedestrian bridges between Buckingham Fountain and Queen's Landing to Daley. But that proposal was shelved. And what the mayor's people have taken now is a step backward -- a disappointing departure from Daley's recent support for pedestrian-friendly moves along the lakefront, which range from the delightfully snaking Frank Gehry-designed pedestrian bridge at Millennium Park to the city's recently concluded architecture competition for pedestrian bridges across the Drive.

The damage done by the closing of the Buckingham Fountain-Queen's Landing crosswalk, however, is aesthetic, not just practical. And it is wreaking its subtle havoc in the very heart of Grant Park.

`Site specific'

Completed in 1927 and principally designed by architect and planner Edward Bennett, co-author with Daniel Burnham of the legendary 1909 Plan of Chicago, Buckingham Fountain is "site specific," as artists and architects are given to say today. It punctuates the Congress Parkway axis, a key feature of the 1909 plan, like a giant exclamation point. It symbolizes Lake Michigan. Its four pairs of whimsical sea creatures represent the states around the lake. Anything that interrupts the openness between the fountain and the lake diminishes the power of both. Yet that is precisely what the ghastly snow fences do. Against the elegant backdrop of the formal, French-inspired gardens that form the setting for the fountain's jewel, they are about as low-rent as low-rent gets. They are, at least, temporary, according to Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, the agency that includes the new Traffic Management Authority. "We need to look at what is going to be aesthetically pleasing," she says, adding that some people are hopping over the snow fences in order to cross Lake Shore Drive.

Could a Daley-style, fake wrought-iron fence be in the offing for Buckingham Fountain?

Could anything be more inappropriate for a site whose very core is about the free flow of space between the fountain and the lake?

One of Daley's singular innovations has been his willingness to bring design from the fringe of public policy to the center. Despite exceptions such as the brutal high-rise condos that flank North Michigan Avenue, he has succeeded in making architecture an essential instrument, rather than an afterthought, of urban development. Yet precisely the opposite has occurred at Queen's Landing. This is a triumph of the City Functional over the City Beautiful, one that leaves Chicago's pedestrians and Grant Park's civic centerpiece in the lurch.
Copyright © 2005 The Chicago Tribune

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Silver Fox said...
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